Years ago, Jean Nichols published a short poem in an issue of Saturday Evening Post that was so true that it stuck with me: “Why couldn’t I have known it all along? Nothing for the singer, everything for the song.” That little epigram is another way of saying that artists of any stripe are not as important as the works they produce. That sentiment played right into my approach to literary analysis known as the New Criticism, a system developed by the Southern Agrarians in 1939. Even though the methodology is not exactly new, it has become a venerable approach to studying literary works without regard to the author’s biography. New Criticism looks at the work itself in all its intricacy, analyzing how the parts work together to form the transference of artistic perceptions.
So, because of that analytical bent, I did not put much stock in the life of William Faulkner, though I published a lot of scholarly writings about his novels after having produced my doctoral dissertation about his work. But the life of the Mississippi genius is fascinating to say the least.
During my career, I made friends with Jimmy Faulkner, William’s nephew who lived with his famous uncle. Jimmy related a lot of anecdotes about the writer’s life that are interesting in themselves, though they have little bearing on the novels. I want to relate one of Jimmy’s stories here that was affirmed by Hollywood director Howard Hawks on a biographical film on PBS entitled A Life on Paper.
Hawks read a Faulkner short story in a magazine and thought it would be the foundation of a good movie. He wrote Faulkner there in Mississippi and sent him a plane ticket, explaining that he was interested in making the film. Hawks said a week or so later, his doorbell rang there in Beverly Hills. When he opened it, he found a little man smoking a big pipe who said in treble, I’m William Faulkner. Hawks responded by saying, “I’m Howard Hawks.” Faulkner replied, “I read it on the check.”
After they were comfortably seated in the den, Hawks said he himself did all the talking and was irritated that Faulkner kept silent. After 45 minutes, Faulkner got up to leave. “Where are you going,” Hawks asked. “Well, you wanted me to write it didn’t you?” Hawks said yes but that he would like to get to know him a little bit and offered him a drink. That was a mistake, because he got to know the author and his propensity for intoxication all too well. They spent three days on a tear. But a few days later, Hawks said, Faulkner showed up at his door with a perfect film script and Faulkner became a screen writer for a long season.
Hawks said later he took Faulkner and Clark Gable hunting. Gable asked Faulkner what living writers he would recommend for him to read. Faulkner said, “John Dos Passos, Thomas Mann and me.” Gable said, “Oh, Mr. Faulkner, do you write?” Faulkner replied, “Yes, Mr. Gable, what do you do?”
Nothing for the singer. Everything for the song.